My summer reading is under way and I’m deep into Jay Parini’s ‘Robert Frost, A Life’. Frost is America’s most popular and famous poet, highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life in New England in the early twentieth century and his command of American colloquial speech.
In the chapters dealing with Frost’s time in England, 1912-15, I discovered that he had made the acquaintance of Hexham born poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, who also rooted much of his work in rural life, that of his home county, Northumberland and in the lives of the working class.
This shared rural link laid the foundations of a friendship that caused Frost to comment in a letter home, “I have no friend here like Wilfrid Gibson". Together they formed part of a group later known as the Dymock Poets.
Gibson has a few lines of his early work inscribed on the Temperley Memorial Fountain, in Hexham Market Place: "O! You who drink my cooling waters clear / Forget not the far hills from whence they flow / Where over fell and moorland year by year / Spring summer autumn winter come and go”.
Just as Gibson implored his readers more than 100 years ago not to forget where their water came from a similar appeal could be made to the public today not to forget where their food comes from.
Brexit, love it or loathe it, is driving farming and the wider debate around rural land use up the public agenda as decisions previously taken in Brussels by 28 countries are set to be taken in London by the UK government alone. Outside of the Common Agricultural Policy it will be Michael Gove of London driving the tractor, so to speak, rather than EU Commissioner Phil Hogan of the Republic of Ireland. Rather than the EU 28 deciding how to spend the farm subsidy millions it will be the UK parliament.
So going forward, how should we spend this sizeable chunk of money, over £3 billion.
There is widespread and cross party political support for the idea of public money for public benefit, but what benefits precisely?
Top of my list would be paying farmers to tackle climate change in part by increasing the carbon content of our soils, leading to better soil health, healthier crops and higher yields. Such an approach would also increase biodiversity on our farms, improve water management including reducing flood risk downstream (remember when Ponteland flooded?). Linked policies could include the restoration of peatlands, the establishment of agroforestry systems, more woodlands and conversion to organic farming all helping tackle climate change.
My second funding priority would be around public access to the countryside and this is for hard-nosed practical reasons. If large sums of public money are to continue to flow into rural land use, farming and forestry specifically, this can only occur in a democracy with public support. Most tax payers are ‘townies’ and they will need to be convinced they are getting value for their money and the best way to do this is to encourage them into the countryside to see for themselves how well their money is being spent - money that could go to the NHS, or schools or care for the elderly. This is why the urban-fringe is so important as it is the nearest countryside to where most people live. Often referred to as ‘the greenbelt’ this land is the farming community’s ‘shop window’ and as such it must be easily accessible to the public and disproportionately attractive – currently it is usually the opposite!
Given the numerous health benefits of time spent in the countryside there should be a target of the rural urban fringe being accessible to all within 30 minutes by public transport including in London. The urban fringe (and we need a better name for it) should see some of the most diverse land use patterns of all rural land i.e. farmland (arable and livestock), agro-forestry, forestry, meadows, allotments, paths, cycle ways, bridle paths, parkland, adventure playgrounds, lakes for fishing and sailing etc. While much of the UK’s ‘deeper’ countryside is very attractive it is the urban fringe that should receive a disproportionate share of future rural payments because of its proximity to the majority of the population. Where the people go, the money should follow.